When we told our grandpa we planned to get married one day, we weren’t much older than in the above photo. Grandpa responded that cousins aren’t allowed to get married, and I remember feeling perplexed. Why wouldn’t I be allowed to marry this boy, when playing together was one of the best parts of my summer visits to central Alberta where all our relatives lived?
We turned a picnic table bench into a slide for the kiddie pool. Genius.
We were both excited to see Land Before Time in the local movie theatre, but he loved it more because he was obsessed with dinosaurs.
We’d beg to go to the fair, and we both loved the treats and the games there, but he was the one who most wanted to win a giant stuffed animal – perhaps because he was already a larger-than-life presence himself, or perhaps because I already knew my lack of hand-eye coordination would never win me much.
We played in his room and he’d tell me stories about every comic book hero and every wrestler he’d ever heard of. I always felt like I was letting him down when I had no idea who he was talking about.
We went for walks outside, and I’d beg to explore more of the fields and pastures. I was a town kid and thought cows were exciting, but it turns out he was the only farm kid I ever met who was terrified of cows.
When we were young, he’d make a big deal of how much older he was – despite the fact it was only 6 months and 21 days. When we got older, he switched tactics and tried to round his age downward…but I’d helpfully remind him that he was in his late 30s, and more than 6 months older than me.
Facebook is a platform he came to use regularly, and far more frequently than me. But I’d open it every now and then just to search his name and scroll his recent posts to get a sense of how he was doing. Sometimes, his social media was full of words or videos that made no sense to me. Or photos that showed him too skinny, and I’d know things were bad again. In better times, his posts were full of pictures and words that expressed how much he loved his work, his friends, his family – especially his kids. These last few days, his Facebook page has been full of posts from people who write “RIP” and talk about his great sense of humour, his kindness, his enthusiasm. Some of them mention his “demons”; some of them sound full of regret. None of these people begin to scratch the surface with their words – and neither does what I’m writing here.
The comments about my cousin are true: he was enthusiastic, kind, and funny. He loved to laugh, and he loved to make other people laugh even more. Over the years, I saw him perform with songs, stories, jokes, impressions. Sometimes he performed on a stage, and sometimes at a table during family dinners. I learned from him that entertaining others can be a service and a generous offering for the audience, but also that it can be a defense mechanism or a cover-up. Sometimes, it’s all of those things at once.
After one of the times my cousin successfully achieved a lengthy period of sobriety, we had a long talk on his parents’ porch – looking out at the cows that were now the least of anyone’s worries. He talked about how hard it was, and the worries he still carried. Mostly, he talked about his kids. There are two, and they are absolutely terrific. He knew it.
Some people might look at those words and think he should have tried harder. The thing about love is that it actually doesn’t overcome everything else. This isn’t a game of “would you rather”. Of course he would have preferred to overcome his problems and gone on to be the best dad in the world. He genuinely believed he had the best kids in the world, and he’d have loved to see them grow up and be a different kind of presence in their lives.
I wrote “one of the times” and “successfully” in an earlier paragraph. Think of your biggest challenge. Have you beat it forever? Have you beat it even once? When you try and fail, how does it feel? My cousin overcame his challenge – a horrific, damaging disease – multiple times. But he didn’t beat it forever. Does that make him a lesser person? Not to me. It breaks my heart, however, to imagine that it might have made him feel like less than he was.
I wish I knew what we could have done differently. My aunt and uncle did a lot: they repeatedly forgave; they repeatedly set boundaries; they repeatedly showed up at scary, institutional settings for visits where I imagine they didn’t know what to say.
Did the professionals do what they could? On a basic level, yes. But did they go deeper, or did they stick to ticking the boxes on their forms to do the basics of caring for another diagnosis, instead of another human?
Did the system do what it could? Do we have adequate healthcare for people with mental illnesses and addictions? Is it available and accessible? Do most of us care about the answers to these questions when we vote, donate, or consider how we react to the facilities in our communities and neighbourhoods?
For some people, this man I’m writing about is just another statistic. Certainly, I’m guilty of reading other peoples’ stories and seeing numbers in the news…and then carrying on with my day. But in this case, I can’t stop thinking about the many stories behind the number. This man was my cousin. He was a son, a brother, a dad, a friend. He laughed; he cared deeply. And I wish it had turned out differently.